Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Contra Scientism

Man, it has been said, can't live without religion. Whether it be the ancient faiths of the semites, the polytheisms of the pagans, the ancestor worship of the orient, or the secular faiths of the moderns, religion is essential, it seems, to the human psyche.

Non-theists, or atheists, often object that they are not religious and don't need religion, but I think they don't realize their own religiosity and their dependence upon it. At least that's true of many of them. Their religion doesn't involve an afterlife or a transcendent, personal deity so it doesn't seem to them to count as a religion, but Buddhism lacks a belief in an afterlife and a personal deity yet it's still a religion.

One example of a secular religion is the modern faith in science, often called scientism, that pervades our culture. Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic recently gave a graduation address at Brandeis University in which he described scientism this way:
Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic, [question].

Owing to its preference for totalistic explanation, scientism transforms science into an ideology, which is of course a betrayal of the experimental and empirical spirit. There is no perplexity of human emotion or human behavior that these days is not accounted for genetically or in the cocksure terms of evolutionary biology.

It is true that the selfish gene has lately been replaced by the altruistic gene, which is lovelier, but it is still the gene that tyrannically rules. Liberal scientism should be no more philosophically attractive to us than conservative scientism, insofar as it, too, arrogantly reduces all the realms that we inhabit to a single realm, and tempts us into the belief that the epistemological eschaton has finally arrived, and at last we know what we need to know to manipulate human affairs wisely. This belief is invariably false and occasionally disastrous. We are becoming ignorant of ignorance.
Scientism stands to naturalism in much the same way that, say, Christianity stands to theism. Scientism is an expression of the belief that nature is "all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be" as Carl Sagan famously put it, and scientism offers its devotees all the trappings of traditional religion. There is a metanarrative (naturalism) that explains the cosmos, a faith (the conviction that science will usher in the eschaton)that unites the laity and offers them hope, an ethic (the principle that we should follow the promptings of our reason), a view of what is allowed to count as truth, there are dogmas (e.g. Darwinian evolution, climate change) to which one must adhere, there's a priesthood (scientists) whose authority is almost beyond question, there are sacred texts (e.g. Origin of Species), heresy trials, a view of salvation (see Luc Ferry's Brief History of Thought), holidays (Darwin Day), and all the rest.

But, as C.S. Lewis points out in Abolition of Man, this is a religion which ultimately dehumanizes. That's Wieseltier's point, too, in his remarks to the Brandeis graduates:
For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work.

Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life. Philosophy itself has shrunk under the influence of our weakness for instrumentality – modern American philosophy was in fact one of the causes of that weakness -- and generally it, too, prefers to tinker and to tweak.

The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.
Considering the boilerplate one often hears at Commencement exercises this really is a remarkable address. The students at Brandeis were fortunate. I just hope some of them were paying attention.